Super League play-offs: Catalans and St Helens a cut above but pitfalls await

After an unpredictable Super League season littered with Covid-related problems and a litany of on- and off-field drama, there is perhaps a certain irony that the route to next month’s Grand Final at Old Trafford appears to be straightforward for the sport’s two dominant teams.

A quick glance at the final table backs up what even the most casual observer of this year’s competition will know: Catalans and St Helens have dominated Super League in 2021, and anything other than a meeting of those two at Old Trafford would be a shock. But if you scratch beneath the surface there are a number of subplots that could yet provide an alternative outcome.

Let’s start at the bottom of the six. Castleford’s defeat to Warrington on Thursday meant that Leeds and Hull KR would take the field against one another on Friday knowing they were already assured of a play-off place before kick-off. They will face Warrington and Wigan in the opening round next week, with the winners progressing to week two and the losers suffering elimination.

But to write off either side despite their position would be foolhardy. Hull KR’s transformation from a side who finished bottom of Super League in 2020 – they were only saved from relegation thanks to Toronto Wolfpack’s withdrawal from the competition – is all the more remarkable given they have made the play-offs with a large core of the squad that won only three games last season.

The additions they have made, including the England wing Ryan Hall, have been crucial in complementing a group of players that have been the most entertaining to watchin Super League under Tony Smith. Smith, the former Leeds and Warrington coach, would surely regard it as his greatest moment if he could guide the Robins to a first Super League title against the odds.

But both his former clubs will be quietly confident too. Leeds have spent large parts of 2021 with more than half their salary cap on the sidelines due to injury and Covid problems. But a clutch of their key players such as Mikolaj Oledzki and Konrad Hurrell will be back for next weekend’s play-off opener and, as history has proven, you write off the eight-time champions at the business end of the season at your peril.

Fourth-placed Wigan have not been impressive this season, yet they have found a way to win enough games to make the six. There is an argument that, despite being at home for their opening play-off tie, they start as outsiders given their failure to score points regularly throughout 2021. However, they, like Leeds, have a knack of timing a run to the Grand Final to perfection.

The closest challengers to Catalans and St Helens in the league are perhaps their strongest rivals in the play-offs too. Warrington have gradually moved through the gears as the play-offs have approached, and there is no shortage of motivation in their camp given Steve Price’s departure as head coach at the end of this season. There is, of course, the significant shadow of their 66-year wait for a league title hanging over them though.

And that is before you discuss the leading duo of Catalans and St Helens, who enter the fray in week two. A first league title for the Dragons? Or a third in a row for the Saints? There will be four teams looking to make sure neither of those outcomes materialise and, despite the state of the final table, this looks to be anything but a simple journey to M16 next month for the top two.

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